In the first part of this topic, I stated that one of the most memorable moments in role-playing is the death of a player character. In the first part, I discussed the comedic death. In part two, I was going to discuss the dramatic death, but instead I found my mind wending it’s way toward the crux of what I was really thinking. I’m going to be discussing deaths that, while lacking humour, affect the role-playing experience in a different way… ofttimes fondly, occasionally with ire.
I’ve never met a fellow lover of role-playing games that doesn’t have a story related to the death of a beloved character. The tone of these stories, told to me most often over beers, vary widely. It ranges from the wide eyed, breathless description of a noble messiah; to the stoic relating of a hero’s death in the line of duty; to the wailing and gnashing of teeth caused by a death unfair. The difference?…
I have seen all manner of death in RPGs… selfless sacrifice to save a helpless NPC, facing down a behemoth to buy time for the party, an unfortunate dice roll against a save-or-die trap, or the worst cause of ignoble death… ill considered adventure design. As a DM, you have to keep in mind that the flavour of the memory of a character’s death, depends entirely on the Meaning that’s ascribed to it within the context of the game world, and the story. As a player, you have to keep in mind that the characters we play live dangerous lives, and that death is a regular part of the adventuring lifestyle. The swag you loot from the long-dead corpses of previous adventuring parties hints at this, and not subtly. Ofttimes they die doing heroic things, but they die doing stupid things, too. Unless you want your character remembered for dying in the way described in Part 1 (and sometimes that’s awesome), put yourself in your character’s shoes.
The most meaningful, and most dramatic death I can remember in a role-playing game, was in a game of Twilight 2000 that I was running somewhere around 1988. My buddies and I were Red Dawn fanatics, and we’d watched every Vietnam War movie we could find. I’d been running the Twilight 2000 game for just over a year, and the players’ characters had grown as close as the players were (we’d grown up together and we were like brothers). They were hunting a bounty placed by a small town on a group of Russian deserters for crimes against humanity, and they’d caught up with their prey just outside of the Free City of Krakow. They set up their ambush, and opened fire.
The battle began heavily in the players’ favour, with surprise on their side. In the planning stage, however, the scout-type character failed on a “Forward Observer” skill check and missed the 2 other groups that were in the area, who happened to be in talks with their quarry about merging and taking over the region. This one dice roll turned what should have been a stealthy night mission, into a bloody “lets send a message” mission.
They moved in to grab whatever food, ammo, fuel, and supplies they could get. One of the players noticed something as his character was looting the bodies, “Hey guys, I count 9. Weren’t there like 16 of the…”
…and that’s when they were hit by the other two groups, and the remainder of this one. The players were much more advanced than the enemy, but the enemy was too many, and the party too few. They put up a valiant fight, but they knew that withdrawal was the only option. As they were falling back, the Lieutenant’s leg was shredded in a grenade blast (less than zilch left in the hit location). He ordered them to get out of there, because he knew they wouldn’t be able to make it carrying him. The players actually got misty as they said their goodbyes, and the lieutenant got ready to hold off the horde.
He put up a hell of a fight, taking out three before they started advancing on his position. As I was describing the epic death-battle of the Lieutenant, one of the players said, “Fuck this. I’m going back.”
To which the others basically said, “Yeah, fuck this. He’s not dying alone.”
I was fucking stunned. They were all going to die… like brothers. Those magnificent, beautiful, fucking bastards.
Through bent rules and fudged dice rolls I was able to make the battle fucking EPIC. Enemies were ground to hamburger against their withering fire, but all the while they were losing HPs, entire hit locations… and friends. In time, there was only one left, and he was about to die. Right before he lost consciousness, he heard the blades of the Krakow Defence Force’s “Flying Carpet”, a Mi-17 Hip helicopter.
Only one survived, but he was able to tell the story to the group of greenhorns he met in the Free City of Krakow. The story of how his brothers died… WHY they died… why it was more important now than it ever was before to protect those who choose to remain human. They joined him. How could they not join this Lieutenant with the sad eyes.